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Shades of nude 

Figures at the Art Center express the beauty, pathos of the human condition

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

The five artists on display in the SLO Art Center’s exhibit “Corpora in Extremis” fulfill the show’s stated purpose of pushing the body to the limits, and they do so in a mad hodgepodge of materials: bronze, acrylics, powdered pigment, oils, glass, synskin. The question is what the figures—portraits painted on glass, silhouettes dangling from the ceiling, tormented faces captured in the act of screaming, summoned to life by men and women whose paths have never crossed—could possibly have in common. The answer is readily evident, even if a Wikipedia summation of the works’ meaning is not.

Curator Gordon Fuglie’s purpose in organizing the show was “just to open the public’s mind about how artists use the figure.” The intention might sound simple if not for the fact that minds, like cans of tuna, are rarely ever opened without a great deal of prying and clatter. As a defensive measure, Assistant Director Muara Johnston designed a pamphlet addressing the question, “What is the difference between nude and naked?” In a censorial gesture that neither the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Guggenheim, nor the Getty would ever contemplate, the Art Center conceals select paintings behind a room divider during children’s art classes. Besides smacking of pandering to small minds in small towns, the room dividers generate mixed messages about nudity in art; on the one hand, Fuglie is proud of the exhibit, which features five undeniably skilled and deliberate artists. But someone—Puritan or prude perhaps—deemed the images objectionable content for youthful eyes. You have to wonder if Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” once upon a time received similar treatment.

But within the work it is astonishing to discover the degree of expressiveness in a simple silhouette or the curve of a back.
 “To survive, we as human beings have learned how to read body language,” Joanne Ruggles, painter and Cal Poly emeritus professor, pointed out. While Ruggles has engaged such diverse genres as landscape and still life, the human figure remains at the heart of her work. The handful of paintings that comprise Ruggles’ contribution to the exhibit bespeak sorrow in several manifestations, including resigned grief and disbelieving despair.
“The Sorrow of Man” depicts a hulking male figure, hands drawn to his face, genitals uncaringly exposed. His face is not visible—Ruggles rarely gifts her figures with faces, fearing that they will deprive the image of its universality—but it is impossible to deny the unchecked grief of his pose. She painted her screaming faces in response to September 11, to a world that she believed had gone mad. But her figures’ grief, their hollow eyes, could just as easily express the pain of being diagnosed with a terminal illness or the death of a loved one. Collectively, they could also serve as illustrations for the five stages of grief, most clearly denial, anger, and depression, but also—in one gracefully wrought image of a figure with fingers woven in front of her face, titled “Implorante VII”—bargaining. 

“I’ve been able to use the figure to address my fears, my joys, my interests. I would say that every artist in the show is doing the same thing. If you look at the majority of the show, darn little of it is about beauty,” said Ruggles. “If you’ve lived you have exactly what you need to come to these paintings and interact with them.”

While the process of painting is intensely personal for Ruggles, she makes a point of avoiding portraits of particular individuals. Her models, she insists, must express the human condition rather than their own individual story. She draws from a palette almost completely absent of flesh tones, her thighs patches of green or bands of red and blue, creating a figure without any racial identification. In fact, her people might most closely resemble a band of Frankenstein’s monsters, physically distinctive but endowed with an inestimable emotional capacity. Another benefit to her unlikely palette is that the colors tend to de-sexualize the figure, making it easier for viewers to approach the nude form without embarrassment.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Ruggles starts each of her canvases with a wilder, abstract version of the circus of color present within her finished pieces. Chaos, she argues, is easier to negotiate than the terror of a blank canvas. Eventually, she will notice a hand or shoulder slowly emerging from the patchwork, and after this playful interlude she begins to focus her attention on the as-yet unknown human.

“Why the human figure? The human figure is us,” concluded Ruggles. “And there is no better vessel to hold our story. It allows us to tell every story that ever existed.”

Fellow painter Guy Kinnear recalls a passage from Jack London’s White Fang, in which a miner about to be devoured by wolves suddenly realizes what an incredible thing a hand is. The miner’s epiphany is no less beautiful because the hand’s existence has become abbreviated; in fact, it is this duality of beauty and pain that fascinates Kinnear.

“A body is a pretty universal object,” he explained. “We all have one. We all have problems with it. We all care for it deeply. It’s both a frustration and a joy to be in a body.”

The human form has always been central to Kinnear’s work, and he has explored his subject in sculpture (both minimalist and conceptual) and in various drawing and painting styles, though he now favors a neoclassical painting style.

Each of Kinnear’s paintings begins with an issue he intends to explore or address, often from Judeo-Christian script. Then, he begins the task of locating a model interested in that particular story; he is critical of what he regards as the art world’s tendency to view models dispassionately as artistic tools or pieces of furniture and, for this reason, he does not use professional models. Linking his own voice with the model’s perspective is an integral aspect of his process, and he makes a point of engaging his models in dialogue throughout the process. Sometimes, his collaborator will draw from experiences or interests they don’t necessarily share, but which enhance their interpretation of the theme. These interests can be as wildly divergent as superhero comic books, war movies, or a third-century martyr.

The purpose of Kinnear’s artistic explorations is not to reach some sort of happy ending, or even an answer to the questions with which he grapples.

“Things change very quickly. A lot of foundational beliefs are gone,” he said. “We’re trying to discover new traditions, new tribes, new beliefs. How do we live and move through these circumstances and still make the most of things?”

Kinnear’s color palette is austere, and many of the men in his work wear nothing but a loincloth, backs to the viewer. Often, there are strong religious undertones, even when it’s difficult to link a particular image with a specific parable or figure. In the Gray Room series, physical disfigurement becomes a central theme within the work, with one piece depicting a figure in mid-leap, three truncated limbs expressing suffering, absence, and loss. At the time he created the series, both Kinnear and his model were struggling with personal injury, though the leaping figure is not autobiographical.

But Donna Anderson Kam’s seven pastel paintings featuring a single model in various hunched and crouching poses are autobiographical, what she calls psychological renderings of her own fears and anxieties. The paintings are all part of a series titled “paranoia part I,” a post-9/11 response to a national atmosphere charged with fear and uncertainty. Anderson Kam’s nude figure repeatedly exposes her vulnerability, as well as fear.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
“It’s sort of that feeling of being in a dream state where you’re caught somewhere and you have something that you’re told will keep you safe, but it won’t,” she explained.

Against an overwhelming expanse of white space, her brunette figure crouches in a primitive, protective stance, sometimes wearing surgical gloves or masks, clutching a cell phone or headphones to her ears, or a headlight strapped to her forehead. The objects become symbols for the futile things that people cling to for security—the technology that can’t save them from terrorist attacks, the masks that afford no protection from the swine flu, the gloves that can’t shield a human from a toxic planet of their own making.

Of the five artists in the show, Anderson Kam’s figures are the most realistically rendered, in flesh tones and with very little abstraction. While the San Francisco-based artist does sometimes turn to other subjects—moving water and tree trunks being of particular interest to her—expressing the human condition is her primary concern, an interest that she believes she shares with the other artists who painted and sculpted the human figure to its extremes.

“Everybody has an immediate response to the figure—in photography, in art,” she explained. “I wanted to do more art that was part of a dialogue with other people, not just for myself.”

Perhaps the exhibit’s most distinctive pieces, material-wise, are the glass portraits and synskin silhouettes produced by Los Angeles-based Peter Liashkov. Unlike the other artists, who expressed a sense of solidarity with their fellow Corpora contributors, Liashkov denies the existence of common ground between his own work and theirs.

“I don’t think it fits at all,” he said, of his work. “I don’t find any affinity with the other artists in the show.”

The painter first began to work with synskin, a translucent fiberglass material, while taking a course in plastics at a trade school in Los Angeles during the late ’70s. He blankets this material in acrylics, iron glimmer, red powdered pigment, glue, charcoal, and earth, fashioning a human form. Around the same time he also began to paint on glass the faces of people he found interesting, and sometimes commissioned visages, producing an estimated 60 such pieces in the last 30 or so years. Three of these portraits are featured in Corpora, their gazes directly confronting the viewer.

The synskin body portraits are something else altogether. The most visible is “Old Man 4,” a salmon silhouette tinted with gray and veined with text from a poem by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The stance is one of resignation, a single hand on the hip a gesture of challenge or acknowledgement of exhaustion. Liashkov began the piece as an investigation into old age, lamenting the fact that the older man’s capacity for feeling matches that of his younger counterpart, even as the vessel weakens.

“The body is cold, but the soul is hot,” describes Liashkov, who is approaching 70. “I’ve watched myself grow from a young man to middle age to old age.” The piece “Unmythic #3” is almost a postscript to the old man piece. A figure has been released from the twisting synskin and drops heedlessly toward the floor, remaining attached to its mooring by the barest of margins. It’s a sad and hapless form, conveying as much vulnerability as Anderson Kam’s surgical mask-clad woman and the pathos of Ruggles’ screaming figures.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The final, but no less significant, contributor to the battery of figures, faces, and silhouettes is Bay Area painter and sculptor Trevor Southey. Corpora primarily features his cast bronze statues, including “Race’s End,” featuring a male torso leaning into an implicit finish line, “Sleep and Sleep,” two figures curled in identical poses of repose though one is blanketed, “Brother’s Keeper,” and “Venus,” which captures the beauty of the female figure.

Comparing the sculptures to the other Corpora work, the dual sleeping forms most embody the themes broadly engaged by the other artists. Curled into a fetal position, the women convey a defenseless quality that many of the other figures in the gallery seem to share. The blanketed form elicits a question mark; is the figure beneath the covering in the clutches of a more final sleep, merely escaping an unfriendly and painful reality, or something else altogether?

For anyone seeking a more complex exploration of the human condition than that offered by Internet status icons—with their near infinite array of happy, confused, flirty, sad, annoyed, or excited faces—Corpora in Extremis is the perfect destination. Provided, of course, you can find your way around the partitions.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is a never-nude. Send cut-offs and blue paint to [email protected].


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